Jeff Garlin is hard not to like. He's a gentle, funny, unpretentious bear of a guy who makes friends easily. His one-man shows in Chicago 15 years ago showed that the actor's plus-sized charms are the real deal. Appearances on TV talk shows, his best-friend status on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm ("Whaaat?!") and the long list of comic stars who show up in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (which Garlin wrote, directed and stars in) confirm that, in Hollywood, "Everybody Loves Jeff."
But it's a lot easier to like Garlin than enjoy his sweet-natured comedy. Meandering, episodic and wistfully observant, Cheese plays more like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (minus the hilarious bile and byzantine plotting) and less like a feature-length film.
James (Garlin) is a 45-year-old Chicago actor who lives with Mom, drowns his low self-esteem with late night junk-food binges at the local convenience store and dreams of playing characters written by Paddy Chayefsky (re: Marty). Unlucky at love and unable to land a steady gig, he's remarkably chipper for a guy who suffers such setbacks. But the weight of failure is beginning to exact its toll. Then James meets Beth (Sarah Silverman), who works in an ice cream parlor. She gives him a free sundae and asks if he's ever had a "Hoagie Shack" (ask Dan Savage) and soon it's romance. Or it seems to be. Unfortunately, luck ain't a lady for James.
It's a sketchy plot at best. James and Beth's Monday to Tuesday romance is less than a third of the movie as oddball characters and narrative detours undermine the film's modest ambitions. Whether its James' attempts to audition for the remake of Marty, an inept speech to a classroom full of first graders, or a run-in with a hotdog-peddling fellow actor (dressed as a pirate, no less), each pointless improvisation's fashioned to accommodate the film's Who's Who of bit players and supporting goofballs. From Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson) to Bonnie Hunt to director Paul Mazursky to Amy Sedaris, the cameos keep piling on.
This isn't to say the film isn't entertaining or occasionally insightful. Silverman and Sedaris provide chuckles as high-strung, casually cruel urban women, Richard Kind has a great cameo as a dismissive agent and Garlin tosses off more than a few zingers. But there's no escaping Garlin's sitcom sensibilities. His camera is static and his interactions are superficial.
What makes Cheese worth seeing is its sense of bittersweet fatalism. Garlin recognizes the quiet desperation overweight, middle-aged people feel when they have no one to share their triumphs (and frequent setbacks) with. Without giving himself a big "movie moment," the actor-filmmaker acknowledges that he's a bit too precocious and unambitious at a time when he can ill-afford to be either. Yet he's unsure of how to change and no solution is offered.
I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is that rare film that shows its insight by what it doesn't say and do. At its end, Garlin offers an abrupt but strangely graceful coda that sheds light on the film's buried (almost smothered) subtext. It's a perfectly distilled meditation on aging, the role of parents and children and the underlying role of performance. Too bad he had to walk such a twisted path to reach his destination.
Opens Friday, Oct. 12, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.